The big news this Super Tuesday is out on Mars, of all places. According to NASA scientists, parts of the red planet were once absolutely drenched with water -- enough high-quality H2O, by all accounts, to support life in a "good, habitable environment."

Here on earth, it's crunch time for Democrats in California, New York, Ohio, Georgia, Minnesota, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. We don't take sides here at the Fool, but we are all about rockin' the vote. As for life on Mars? Right, like anyone who's ever been to Fool HQ had a doubt.

In today's Motley Fool Take:


lifornia Snubbing Wal-Mart

By Alyce Lomax

Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) is having some trouble with its supersized Supercenter concept, with high-profile difficulty brewing in California. Voting is under way today for several communities there that are attempting to block entry of the superscaled version of the discount store, according to USA Today.

Among the concerns cited in the article include Wal-Mart's tendency to open smaller stores, then shutter those to build Supercenters close by, leaving empty shells in communities. The retailer is also facing increasingly bitter public attention for its tendency to wipe out smaller retailers, including mom-and-pop shops.

On the other side of the coin, though, is the idea that low-income consumers need venues like Wal-Mart in order to keep house on a shoestring. Not only does Wal-Mart offer jobs and low-priced merchandise, its Supercenters tend to drive down prices of groceries in the markets they enter.

If California remains largely closed to the retailer, it's a lucrative market to miss. Beyond that state, USA Today points to the increasing number of communities across the country that are balking at the idea of Wal-Mart Supercenters plunking down in their backyards. Frustration with suburban sprawl, traffic problems, and overzealous development are all well-known issues, so it's hardly surprising that a Wal-Mart backlash would eventually become more serious as it seemingly moves into every neighborhood.

Retailers like rival Target(NYSE: TGT), as well as venues like Costco(Nasdaq: COST), BJ's Wholesale Club(NYSE: BJ), Best Buy(NYSE: BBY), Home Depot(NYSE: HD), and others, may snap up prime real estate, but they don't get nearly the same amount of heat on these issues as Wal-Mart does. But then again, the size of many Wal-Mart Supercenters puts the square footage of those retailers to shame.

California's backlash is a trend investors need to watch when contemplating Wal-Mart's future, as the Supercenter concept has served it well. Dialogue about the company is becoming more political, with an increasingly negative eye toward some of its business practices -- even with the strange contradiction that it was deemed one of this year's most admired corporations in America. However, even if a kinder, gentler Wal-Mart emerges from all the recent public scrutiny, the company's also well established as a survivor and an innovator. This gives Wal-Mart one more way to prove its mettle.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any companies mentioned.

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Marvel's Mystifying Split

By Seth Jayson

Marvel Enterprises (NYSE: MVL) , the comics maker turned licensing powerhouse, makes a lot of money by capturing America's attention with superheroes like Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk. But this morning, it looks like Marvel used its superpowers to direct the public's gaze away from its financial results. The trick? A three-for-two stock split.

The tragedy is that there was nothing really wrong with the fourth-quarter and full-year numbers reported today. Sales were strong for the year, up 16% to $347.6 million. Operating income more than doubled to $167.2 million. Operating margins zoomed from 27% to 48%, which yielded earnings per share of $1.58 (if you back out the one-time credit of $0.43 per share Marvel realized in the third quarter). There were a couple of missteps for the fourth quarter, but earnings still hit $0.18 per share, a penny better than expected.

For the year, cash from operating activities was $171 million, up 128%. And the generation of green will only accelerate when the firm retires its remaining debt in June and reaps the rewards of this summer's release of Spider-Man 2, along with many new games and other licensing. Marvel expects 2004 revenues to increase around 25% to near $430 million. Despite these strengths, it was forced to guide next year's earnings to around $1.30 per share, a drop from 2003 due to the fact that after success comes the taxman.

That's what makes the split look so curious. Remarks by President and CEO Alan Lipson contained the usual verbiage about improving liquidity, along with this tidbit: "The decision to split the stock reflects our interest in creating a more affordable share price, which will enable a broader base of investors and Marvel fans to purchase Marvel stock."

A little more of that and I'll have everything I need to fertilize my garden this spring. Under the plan, shares will be repriced from around $33 to $22. Do they really think that America's comic-book fans can't afford the extra $11 a stub? This looks like a facile and unnecessary attempt to hype the stock. Here's some unsolicited advice for Marvel's management: Sell the superheroes. Make loads of money. Let the shares sell themselves.

Fool contributor Seth Jayson makes regular visits to a nearby nuclear power plant, but has not yet acquired any superpowers. He owns shares of Marvel.

Qu ote of Note

"It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both." -- Niccolo Machiavelli

BJ's Stands Strong

By Dave Marino-Nachison

Shares of wholesale club operator BJ's Wholesale Club(NYSE: BJ) rose slightly in morning trading on news of solid fiscal Q4 (ended Jan. 31) and full-year financial results, as well as an upbeat outlook for the fiscal year ending in Jan. 2005.

BJ's, which currently operates 150 warehouse clubs and 78 gas stations in the eastern U.S., has a smaller presence (in terms of store count) than do key peers Costco(Nasdaq: COST) and Wal-Mart's(NYSE: WMT) Sam's Club. This puts the retailer in a challenging competitive position relative not only to those companies but also discount retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target(NYSE: TGT). While this dynamic has taken its toll on past results, the company is nevertheless a competitor.

The top-line figures bear this out best. Full-year net sales rose 15% to $6.58 billion, helped by same-store sales growth of nearly 8%. Revenue from membership fees also improved -- but by a slower rate, perhaps suggesting that existing shoppers were more loyal in fiscal 2004.

Moving down the income statement, however, things aren't as pretty. Cost of goods sold as a proportion of net sales (which excludes membership fees) fell year over year, but improved gross margins couldn't power higher net profit. SG&A expense increased and operating income fell. In the end, net income fell some 20% -- slightly more if accounting changes made during 2003 are taken into account -- to $104 million. That figure looks better if post-tax gains connected with certain lease liabilities are removed from both fiscal years.

There is more good news, however. Cash from operations came in well ahead of reported net income, and BJ's did generate more free cash flow than it did last year even as net income fell and capital expenditures rose. Same-store sales were up nearly 8% in February, and management is projecting a return to net income growth this year.

All this has helped BJ's shares outpace the S&P 500 -- not to mention Wal-Mart and Costco -- over the last 12 months, indicating that investors are standing behind the company's efforts to compete with the "big boys."

Fool contributor Dave Marino-Nachison doesn't own any companies in this article. He can be reached via email.

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re on Today

People are ga-ga over all things small. Check out part two of a Motley Fool special report on nanotech, where Carl Wherrett and John Yelovich survey the companies that could be poised to cash in.... Are you a market watcher? Good news! David Forrest believes that understanding the "wealth effect" and keeping a good eye on the market will help you to better manage your investments.

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